Carrie White stares in horror, covered with blood, in Carrie (1976)

“Telekinesis… thought to be the ability to move… or to cause changes… in objects… by force of the mind…?”

Growing up, I’d been turned off to the horror genre for a few reasons. Horror films in general never really felt deep, emotionally speaking, and were full of stereotypes. They also seemed to revel in misogyny and weak female characters. 42 years after its release, Carrie is still a breath of fresh air. Directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface, Dressed to Kill) and starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, this was a landmark horror film that wasn’t content to stick to simple characters and situations. The character of Carrie White was painfully real and vulnerable, but strong in her own way, and the emotional core of the movie was raw and powerful. And, unlike most horror films, women run the show here—despite a gratuitous opening scene, there are some pretty empowering scenes here, as well as some open discussion of the hardships of being a woman. It honestly feels a bit dated today, but the tension and sense of dread hanging over the whole film is as heavy today as it was in 1976 and this still holds up as a classic and very influential horror film.

The story focuses on Carrie White, a shy and awkward high school girl with an oppressive and abusive hyper-religious mother. In the high school locker room, she gets her first period—which her mother never explained to her, so she totally freaks out. The other girls taunt her, throwing tampons and pads at her as she screams, until friendly gym teacher Miss Collins breaks them up and calms Carrie down. One classmate, Sue Snell, feels remorse for the incident, and asks her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom to give her one night of feeling like a normal girl. But another classmate, Chris Hargensen, harbors malice toward Carrie and plans a cruel prank on the night of the prom. Oh, and did I mention that Carrie has telekinetic powers?

He’s gonna laugh at you. They’re all gonna laugh at you!

Carrie is a film that begs a feminist viewing, and it makes some excellent points. The inciting event—classmates teasing Carrie for her first period—shows that Carrie is essentially suffering just for being a woman, and her religious mother blames women for men’s sexual misconduct and frames female sexuality in a negative light. Poor Carrie is caught in the middle between an oppressive religious culture and an abusive pop culture and there’s really no winning, despite the best efforts of her gym teacher, Miss Collins. Men repeatedly fail to jump in and save the day. The school principal can’t even be bothered to learn Carrie’s name, let alone understand her plight. Most of the male teenagers are horrible people. Even Tommy Ross, who takes Carrie to prom and treats her like a real girl, only does so because his girlfriend Sue feels guilty and wants to do something nice for Carrie. This film paints a pretty bleak image of the world and its treatment of women, and every aspect of that comes down hard on Carrie White. The opening scene in a girls locker room features some gratuitous nudity that does detract from the feminist points somewhat, and I attribute this to director Brian De Palma missing the finer points of the script, but the rest of the film speaks pretty clearly.

Carrie White looks nervous and slightly awkward
Sissy Spacek brings the nervous and vulnerable Carrie White to life in an amazing performance which earned her a Best Leading Actress Oscar nomination.

With the exception of one notable scene, I wouldn’t describe this film as scary so much as foreboding, with this sense of dread hanging over everything, from Carrie’s abuse at the hands of her mother to the cruelty displayed by her classmates. I honestly felt terrible watching things play out, although not so much so that I wanted to turn it off. That ever-present dread makes excellent fuel for the excellent prom sequence, which takes up about a third of the film with tension rising as each minute passes. The moments before things go wrong play out in slow motion, relishing the suspense as the audience cringes in their seats. This was my first time watching the film, and I wasn’t quite sure how things would play out, but I knew there was no way things would turn out well.

Carrie is an exceptionally smart horror film with some great social commentary and a raw emotional core that give it more heft than any other horror film I can think of. Some things feel dated today, like a few of the special effects and especially the music, but the emotional punch and feminist ideas have aged very well. This is a classic horror film that stands out as one of the best the genre has to offer, both for its excellent use of suspense to create a sense of dread and its topical discussion of the social movements and pitfalls of the 70s. If you’re a fan of horror films, this is an absolutely essential film.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:38
Director: Brian De Palma
Year: 1976
Genres: horror, teen, thriller
Rating: R

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